Thursday, October 19, 2017
Brooklyn Rider - Spontaneous Symbols (2017)
New York string quartet Brooklyn Rider have made a career establishing the crucial link between essential classical music and the now more nebulous, far reaching era of modern composition. It's a choice that's taken them on a rather circuitous journey. From introducing the uninitiated to Armenian composer Komitas Vartaped or their cover of Mexican rockers Cafe Tacvba's "La Muerte Chiquita" on their first record Passport, to the global premiere of collaborations with Iranian composer/Kamancheh play Kayhan Kalhor and New York based Russian composer Ljova, Brooklyn Rider have taken great care not only to bridge the musical gap between traditional classical music and contemporary but also to bridge cultural gaps (unsurprising considering Brooklyn Rider are also members of the Yo-Yo Ma founded Silkroad Ensemble).
While most of their albums paired a known classical work with newer works they felt meshed well or were inspired, the foursome broke new ground with The Brooklyn Rider Almanac: a collection of collaborations from all living composers/artists like folk singer Aoife O'Donovan and jazz pianist Vijay Iyer. Since then the group has gone on to have a number of releases like the Gabriel Kahane collaboration The Fiction Issue but The Brooklyn Rider Almanac signaled a turning point in the quartet's catalog where elevating and commissioning new works took primary focus over their attempts to revitalize old classics. The spirit remained but by focusing almost exclusively on works from composers they could actually work with, the quartet highlights all the exciting things that are happening in current day classical scene. Spontaneous Symbols is a return of sorts to their traditional setup (even as they welcome new cellist Michael Nicolas). Unlike The Fiction Issue or their collaboration with soprano Anna Sofia von Otter So Many Things, Spontaneous Symbols repositions many of those extended collaborations back to the simpler composer/performer dynamic.
"ArpRec1", a composition by Tyondai Braxton, is a notated version of piece Braxton normally performs with the use of a midi controller and built using Ableton and MaxMSP. Brooklyn Rider are no strangers to work with electronics, as evidenced by "Together Into This Unknowable Night" from their album Seven Steps, a composition by violinist/software engineer Christopher Tignor. "ArpRec1" is a piece that relies on the intuition of the performers. Reminiscent of the works of Terry Riley, "ArpRec1" Braxton's use of generative technique allows for a feeling of spontaneity. And yet, much like Riley's use of music modules gives each performance an improvisitory quality, to the casual listener the gradual build and precision of rhythmic fixtures seem wholly planned. It's not until the end of the first part where you hear a sort of unraveling that it occurs there could anything happening other than the written music. Considering this is the notated version of Braxton's musical experiments, it's not totally out of the norm that he would include this moment of chaos as part of the music. It actually forms a bridge between the two parts the piece is split into on the album: from the surefooted, unfurling of part 1 into the frenzied pacing of part 2, the minor elongating, conflicting rhythms sets up an unexpected second act.
"BTT", Brooklyn Rider's own addition to the album by violinist/composer Colin Jacobsen, sees the quartet essentially finding parallels between their classical training and the modern classical movement. Inspired equally by the 70's/80's downtown New York scene as well as by John Cage, Jacobsen realized that Cage and Bach, though diametric opposites are connected through a tendency towards rule-making. Bach's being strict and conservative while Cage's were meant more to focus his chaos. The result is a multi-layered piece that's a pendulum swing between order and chaos, minimalism and maximalism. Theoretically, Jacobsen is operating on a level of deep complex: having two motifs: a Bach and Cage one, interweaving all throughout while also trying to pay homage to Phillip Glass and Steve Reich. It's a piece that's pretty much synonymous with Brooklyn Rider's mission statement as it seeks to illustrate the interconnectedness of music using the string quartet as that lens.
Brooklyn Rider's albums have contained at least one multi-movement work and Evan Ziporyn's Qi is Spontaneous Symbols offering. Inspired by the Chinese concept of life-force, Ziporyn's three movement work is breath-taking. First movement "Lucid Flight" is adequately named as it seeks to inspire a feeling of weightlessness in the listener, the harmonics like soft wisps of air streaming past your face. But Ziporyn avoids expectations of what flying is supposed to sound like - it's not all polished breathy melodies and bright timbres, rather there's a dissonance that flutters in and out as if the awareness of the unnaturalness of human flight seeks to ground it at any time. That "awareness" theme is passed around from instrument to instrument even as those airy harmonics try to keep everything afloat.
"Garden", the second movement of Qi begins slowly, a comedown from the flighty first movement but when it truly touches down, it offers up one of Spontaneous Symbols most beautiful moments. It's meditative while not lethargic, it's also built with kaleidoscopic complexity, as a shifting array of vibrant coloring and stirring melodic moments catapult it forward from section to section. Where "Lucid Flight" glides from one moment to the next, "Garden" arrives to each with deep centering breaths. And its final section gives the sense of relieving sighs before letting everything peter out to contemplative silence.
And where "Garden" is an inward moment, "Transport" is reactionary. Inspired by intense moments that led to epiphanic revelations, "Transport" is expectedly busy. But even then Ziporyn subverts that notion, it isn't a fast paced sprint, it's a patient plod toward a moment of true weightlessness "Lucid Flight" never actually achieves. Perhaps because of the expectation and cerebral nature of it then but in "Transport" it whisks you up and away.
Where Ziporyn's piece is focused on the inner life, Paula Matthusen's "on the attraction of felicitous amplitude" is a piece shaped by a strong sense of place. Written during Matthusen's fellowship at the American Academy at Rome, it's a piece that draws from Matthusen's love of architecture and a cistern underneath the Villa Aurelia in particular. Matthusen utilizes field recordings she took of the cistern and the piece is an exploration of how sounds travel in the space paired with notated music performed by Brooklyn Rider. The quartet capture both the cavernous quality as the space while also replicating the sound of trickling water with col legno and slides. In addition to trying to replicate the sounds of the space but also invoking how sound travels in it, the field recordings are also transduced through the actual instruments themselves.
Kyle Sanna's "Sequence for Minor White" closes out the album and is a particular solid choice for that duty. Inspired both by the photography and the teachings of photographer Minor White, Sanna builds a set of sequences sans movement. One doesn't have to be at all familiar with Minor White or his teachings to be effected by Sanna's work as the work is multitudinous and sans context but like White's sequence philosophy, Sanna seeks to construct a sense of interconnectedness. White's attempts to evoke a stronger feeling through the grouping of specific photographs is an idea not at all foreign to composition where often you string various personal ideas or techniques together in the hopes that the observer can put the puzzle together (except if you have the benefit of program notes) but the idea to essentially score selected still photographs and White's philosophy to try and provide an adequate measure of the man is incredibly ambitious. But if the piece inspires you to acquaintance yourself with either the photography, creative thoughts, or poetry of Minor White, Kyle Sanna is sure to consider the work successful.
For a group of musicians that pushes themselves to new creative endeavors over and over, it seems unfair to call Spontaneous Symbols their best work. It is an assuredly different work than they've released before both in form and content but it seems like their most vital. Brooklyn Rider essentially wrote themselves a new playbook on The Brooklyn Rider Almanac and those lessons have been internalized and improved upon. Spontaneous Symbols is not the easiest album to listen to but it is an incredibly interesting one full of fruitful collaborations and compositions. Brooklyn Rider are hardly the kind of that frequently need to highlight their strengths as a string quartet but Spontaneous Symbols contains many pieces that do just that. Brooklyn Rider are not only game for just about anything but have an exception knack for curation that in turn spotlights their incredible versatility. Spontaneous Symbols that requires patience but rewards it with both incendiary moments and soothing ones.
Brooklyn Rider's new album Spontaneous Symbols is out October 20th on violinist/Brooklyn Rider founding member Johnny Gandelsman's In A Circle Records. You can pre-order the album here.